There has been an enduring fascination with the possibility of gender differences in the brain basis of language, yet the evidence has been largely equivocal. Evidence does exist, however, for women being at greater risk than men for developing psychomotor slowing and even Alzheimer disease with advancing age, although this may in part at least be due to women living longer. We examined whether gender, age, or their interaction influenced language-related or more general processes in reading. Reading consists of elements related to language, such as the processing of word sound patterns (phonology) and meanings (semantics), along with the lead-in processes of visual perception and orthographic (visual word form) processing that are specific to reading. To test for any influence of gender and age on either semantic processing or orthography-phonology mapping, we tested for an interaction of these factors on differences between meaningful words and meaningless but pronounceable non-words. We also tested for effects of gender and age on how the number of letters in a word modulates neural activity for reading. This lead-in process presumably relates most to orthography. Behaviorally, reading accuracy declined with age for both men and women, but the decline was steeper for men. Neurally, interactions between gender and age were found exclusively in medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). These factors influenced the word-non-word contrast, but not the parametric effect of number of letters. Men showed increasing activation with age for non-words compared to words. Women showed only slightly decreasing activation with age for novel letter strings. Overall, we found interactive effects of gender and age in the mOFC on the left primarily for novel letter strings, but no such interaction for a contrast that emphasized visual form processing. Thus the interaction of gender with age in the mOFC may relate most to orthography-phonology conversion for unfamiliar letter strings. More generally, this suggests that efforts to investigate effects of gender on language-related tasks may benefit from taking into account age and the type of cognitive process being highlighted.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Cognitive neuroscience
- Functional magnetic resonance imaging
- Orbitofrontal cortex